Secret Library

Nancy Cunard’s Parallax: A Forgotten Modernist Masterpiece

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses an obscure modernist long poem influenced by T. S. Eliot

Nancy Cunard is not a name one immediately associates with poetry. The first thing that’s likely to strike one is the surname, the name of the luxury shipping line, and sure enough Nancy Cunard belonged to that illustrious (family) line. To those who know something of Nancy Cunard herself, she is more famous as a socialite and friend to the literary great and good than as a poet herself: she had a relationship with Ezra Pound, and there’s even a rumour that she slept with T. S. Eliot. Indeed, Cunard is believed to be the infamous Fresca from the early drafts of Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, where she is depicted as an empty-headed wannabe poet who reads Samuel Richardson while on the toilet.

Cunard’s own poetry has often been overlooked, read by a few, and written off even by many of those who have read it. Although she was an influential part of the little magazines which modernist poets used to publish their work to a like-minded readership – she was a frequent contributor to Wheels, the Sitwells’ magazine, whose title was inspired by one of Cunard’s own poems – Nancy Cunard’s own poetry has not received much serious attention. Yet her long 1925 poem Parallax, published by the Hogarth Press run by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, is certainly worth paying serious attention to, not least because of its relationship to that much more famous and canonical work, Eliot’s own The Waste Land.

This critical neglect is undoubtedly partly due to the fact that Cunard’s Parallax was out of print for over 90 years. After the Woolfs published Parallax in 1925, it would have to wait until 2016, and the publication of Cunard’s Selected Poems (Fyfieldbooks) (edited by Sandeep Parmar) to see the proper light of day again. In this respect, Cunard is not unlike another female modernist poet of this era, Hope Mirrlees, whose similarly long and similarly experimental long poem Paris was also published by the Hogarth Press (in 1920), but remained out of print – with the exception of an excised version in a literary journal of a limited print run in the 1970s – until 2011. Poems like Paris and Parallax invite – perhaps even force – us to go back and reappraise the literary landscape of British modernist poetry in the 1920s, in the immediate wake of the First World War.

And like The Waste Land, both Paris and Parallax are post-war poems in terms of not only their contexts but their subject-matter. But what makes Parallax so curious is that Cunard is engaging with the war not in a direct way but via Eliot’s poem, and appears to be questioning the grim conclusions about modern civilisation which Eliot’s poem offers (in so far as such an ambiguous poem as The Waste Land can be said to offer anything so tight as ‘conclusions’). But those who read Parallax when it was first published in 1925 don’t appear to have read it particularly closely, or else had already made their minds up about the person who wrote it. So F. R. Leavis, in his New Bearings in English Poetry from 1932, dismissed Cunard’s poem as a ‘simple imitation’ of The Waste Land, while Laura Riding and Robert Graves, in their 1927 book A Survey of Modernist Poetry, also saw it as imitation rather than anything deeper or more interesting. One reviewer of Cunard’s earlier collection, Outlaws (1921), after complaining that her poetry was impossible to understand, devoted the rest of the review to a consideration of Cunard’s hat.

But in my chapter on Cunard’s poem in my new book, The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem, I offer a different view. Parallax was not ‘simple imitation’ of The Waste Land, although it was clearly influenced by Eliot’s poetry. Instead, Cunard is doing something far more interesting: she is offering a critique of Eliot’s bleak vision of post-war life but in the form of a poem that adopts a similar length and style to Eliot’s. Like The Waste Land, Parallax is an allusive poem, but where Eliot’s poem alluded to texts as varied as the poetry of Edmund Spenser, the plays of Shakespeare and Webster and Kyd, and holy texts from the Buddhist fire sermon to the Old Testament and the Upanishads, Parallax alludes instead to Eliot’s own writing. Cunard engages with the stylistic makeup of Eliot’s poem and then undoes it on its own terms. Where Eliot offers grim images of decay and drought, Cunard takes up these images and then subtly gives them a twist, reluctant to reject Eliot’s message altogether but unhappy with its rather dour hopelessness. The way Cunard effects this critique of Eliot’s poetry – which, lest we forget, has been the dominant mood of modernist poetry of the era as it is taught on undergraduate courses at universities, where Eliot’s message of despair becomes the modernist outlook by default – is subtle, so it’s no wonder critics never detected it before. And, to be fair, there weren’t too many of them looking for it. You can read an excerpt from Parallax here. The full poem is included in Cunard’s Selected Poems (Fyfieldbooks).

Parallax was not quite without its admirers altogether. A young Samuel Beckett, whose early work Cunard published, was a fan, and wrote to her enthusiastically about it. William Carlos Williams thought Cunard ‘one of the major phenomena of history’, and the influential journalist Janet Flanner thought Parallax ‘superior’ to The Waste Land. We needn’t go so far as Flanner to make the case for the importance of Parallax in helping us to gain a fuller picture of 1920s modernist poetry that came out of England – whether it was written by English poets like Cunard or adopted Americans like Eliot and Pound. The word ‘parallax’ means the change in our perspective of something based on our location in relation to it. Since Nancy Cunard’s poem encourages us to recalibrate our understanding of modernist poetry, it is itself parallactic.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem, available now from Bloomsbury.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

2 Comments

  1. Wonderful – will definitely follow this up. Great many thanks.